[Humanist] 29.613 where attention goes

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jan 12 08:38:06 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 613.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 11 Jan 2016 12:51:27 +0100
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  29.595 where attention goes?
        In-Reply-To: <20160105092315.C9FA67B84 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

I didn't know of William Ashworth's remarks about "inscribing
the workings of human intelligence into a machine."  Very
nice!  And thank you!

We have continued this tradition.  More recent examples being
the brain is like a gigantic (analogue) telephone exchange,
and more recently still, like a (big) computer, or now the

Can it be any other way?  Can we come to understand things
without adopting or at least leaning upon notions drawn
directly from the things we can build?  Could we have come to
understand bird flight without building working
heavier-than-air flying machines?

Making things, and making them work well, and keeping them
working well, certainly does demand good knowledge and
understanding of things.  It's thus not surprising that it can
appear to offer a good foundation upon which to build an
understanding of things we didn't make.  Where else could we
find such a foundation?  Or, how else might we acquire one?

On to Northrop Frye.  As you know, I'm not (by training) of
the Humanities, nor am I a scholar of literature.  However, I
do have an interest in Frye because of his development and
promotion of literary criticism as a science.  For me, Frye
overly stretches the notion of science to cover his way of
doing literary criticism, but it's not for me to complain
about this, not here at least.

What I think is worth asking here is, does doing good Frye-ian
literary criticism involve doing the kinds of statistical
analysis of texts that we can now do, and which we see being
done?  My (possibly wrong) way of understanding Frye-ian
literary criticism is that for it to be done well we need to
look carefully and extensively at how texts are built, using
notions and concepts drawn from our attempts to understand
them as carefully crafted human built things.

Today, if you wanted to understand airplanes, you could do the
same--though first acquiring a degree in aeronautical
engineering would be a more conventional way: you could look
carefully at how airplanes are built and what the people who
build them do, how, and with what.  What would not work, I
think, would be attempts to do statistical analysis of all the
many many kinds of airplane designs we now have.

Such statistical analysis might give you some new and possibly
useful categories and surface similarities and
diss-similarities, but it will never tell you how we build
good airplanes, nor anything about how we are able to do this.
For that, you need to talk with, and work with, the people who
do this.  I'd say it's the same for written texts too.  

Aeronautical engineering is a humanities subject too.  We just
forgot this along the way somewhere.  Building good texts is
an engineering subject, so you can't leave out the people who
do it if you want to really understand it.

Best regards,


> On 05 Jan 2016, at 10:23, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 595.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Tue, 5 Jan 2016 07:02:31 +0000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: where attention goes
> Writing of the promotion of mechanization in the late 18th and early 
> 19th centuries, William Ashworth remarks that,
>> Debates over the replication of human intelligence have less to do
>> with what it is to be human and far more to do with making it fit the
>> criteria of the prevalent culture.... Thus attempts at inscribing the
>> workings of human intelligence into a machine were (and are)
>> ultimately about making humans appear to think like machines too and
>> then claiming it as 'natural'. 
> ("England and the Machinery of Reason", in Bodies/Machines, ed. 
> Iwan Rhys Morus, p. 47)
> Thus when we present evidence of improved grasp and so understanding of 
> our subjects by means of computing, with implicit if not explicit 
> argument that we should be thinking of them in this new way, is not the 
> process of naturalizing the machine well underway? The problem I see 
> here, often exacerbated by promotionalism, is the unspoken imperative 
> that we should redirect rather than enlarge the scope of our attention. 
> The new way, whatever it is, means a tradeoff, a loss as well as a gain. 
> Losing the loss seems to me a real loss.
> Take the view of literature that statistical processing enables, for example. 
> It's a genuine gain to have better command of the background against 
> which a particular novel or poem is read. (Back in my days as a doctoral 
> student of English literature, before any of this was possible, Northrop 
> Frye was arguing tirelessly for the value of bringing into focus the whole 
> Western literary corpus.) But is there a danger here of forgetting actual, 
> literal reading? Literary history is indeed well served by the sharper, more 
> comprehensive overview, but it in turn serves individual reading of 
> individual works. We fret institutionally and some of us personally over 
> the connection between intra- and extra-mural life. At their meeting point 
> is the work of literary, visual, musical, material art. What can be done 
> right there, with our tools, to help them come alive?
> Comments? 
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
> Group, Western Sydney University

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